This story was written by Hillary Alamene.
We are often reminded by current events that we are living in unprecedented times, astutely aware of how our current circumstances impact the way we think, speak, and interact with one another. Life, as we know it, requires constant adaptation—serving as the reminder that the only constant we experience habitually is changing itself. One area of life that has undergone innumerable changes since the advent of the pandemic is education within the United States.
Senior Manager at Ashoka Vipin Thekk discussed with three pioneers of changemaker education, Aleta Margolis, Paula Giaquinto, Kristina Gillmeister, the changes that have occurred thus far across the educational landscape, as well as what the trajectory for change may look like in the future.
Paula Giaquinto is the Former Assistant Superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts with a career of leading a new model of schooling that transfers agency to young people through student-directed learning, journey-based experiences, and student body transformation.
Aleta Margolis, a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow, is the Founder and CEO of Inspired Teaching, which transforms the PreK-12 school system by cultivating changemaker educators who authentically engage their students as active learners and empathetic critical thinkers. Aleta has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2001.
Kristina (Tina) Gillmeister is the STEM Coordinator of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, pioneering changemaker education in classrooms through student-driven instruction, project-based learning, and transdisciplinary curriculum.
Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
Takeaway #1: Changemaking is the process of taking on an initiative to solve a problem for the good of all, but it is also a process that is accompanied by philosophical and ethical changes within oneself and those involved.
Across the educational landscape, as we think about what the changemaker identity is, we are simultaneously thinking about how this identity is embedded within educators and how they are then able to transform their classrooms and learning environments to create a broader changemaker culture. Paula notes that changing this ecosystem requires that “skills and dispositions [are] owned by everyone.”
When Paula refers to everyone, she truly means everyone: students, educators, parents, principals, administrators, local leaders, and even community members. Everyone has a substantive role to play as we sit with the question of: how can we all prepare students to grow into the people they need to be outside of the classroom? She says, “education serves as the keystone for the community,” and because of this, it appears that the classroom is a good starting point for the changemaker identity to emerge.
Takeaway #2: For changemaking to thrive in the classroom, students must be able to co-create and direct their own learning.
Two of the aforementioned educators provided examples as to how they have implemented this new form of student-led learning in their own school districts: Paula spoke about the changemaking training for faculty in the Fitchburg School District to promote co-creation of the curriculum with students. For example, the students hosted a poetry night at the local historical society in Fitchburg, Massachusetts with the support of their English Language Arts teacher who was interested in poetry. Students were just enamored as the teacher was, explaining that they not only wanted to write poetry, but they also wanted to recite their poetry before an audience.
Consequently, teachers organized an event for students to share their work with local writers, elders, and other community members. Paula recalls that the event “changed the perspective of the community, about who the students are that go to our high school” are and what they are capable of, especially as the demographics of the schools differ significantly from the traditional racial demographics and financial standing of residents in Fitchburg.
From the perspective of a STEM educator, Tina was able to list some of the ways in which students became arbiters of their own destinies. When a group of students who enjoyed learning about astronomy noticed the lack of outdoor and space-related initiatives in their science curriculum, they decided to create a traveling planetarium. The planetarium was then taken to the elementary schools within the area, providing other students with the opportunity to partake in a more engaging learning experience. In turn, what these stories display is the importance of student-directed learning: a form of learning that allows students to take initiative based on their interests and what brings them joy.
These examples are not just iterations of student projects, but rather, experiences that provide lessons that can be sustained throughout the course of a student’s learning journey. It is only through an educator’s full commitment to the changemaking experience that allows this process to succeed. When students’ interests are met with curiosity, rather than assumption, educators have the potential to assist in curating the spaces and platforms where students feel enabled to act.
Takeaway #3 For an educator, changemaking may initially induce feelings of trepidation or reluctance. But educators are on their own journey, too.
The lack of innovation may be derived from the fact that “changemaking is a lonely journey”. Aleta corroborates this point by sharing a story about her experience during her first year as a 6th-grade teacher at the age of 24. As a teacher, she did not require that her students walk in a straight line down the hallway, as long as they were mindful of the environment and those around them. When it came to teaching students geometry, she curated a lesson that allowed them to learn such concepts through choreography.
Although this was warmly embraced by students, her actions elicited disdain from her colleagues. What she was doing was wrong, according to the dichotomy within education that defines one’s approach to teaching as good or bad. This binary asserts that certain actions can either be deemed as good, meaning that they exist within a presupposed framework that everyone is expected to adhere to, or they are deemed as bad, implying that they are unconventional and likely to fail.
Aleta stated that during that time, the criticism she received was concerning, but she remained aware of the fact that her approach to teaching felt correct. Many teachers have probably had similar experiences, and she shares that the idea is often that “if I do what everyone else is doing and it doesn’t work, it’s not my fault. If I step out there and I try something new and it doesn’t work, [then] it is my fault. That is still how the system is set up, unfortunately.” Engaging students through innovative and creative means can be effective, but it can often be a scary pursuit if one is unaware of the outcomes.
Takeaway #4 Improvisational teaching is a critical learning tool for both educators and administrators to create a culture that welcomes adaptability.
Aleta continually spoke about improvisational teaching, which refers to a strategy that requires teachers to think and act as though they are improvisational actors. She says, “maintain a goal, welcome any surprises that arise, and build upon the surprise.” As educators embrace this approach to teaching, we may also be forced to redefine the expectations we have of them. She describes changemaking education well when she says, “teachers should be instigators of thought”. Rather than anticipating that students will learn from rote memorization, teachers should feel inclined to provoke dialogue by exploring how students may respond to dissenting opinions when presented with views that are widely held.
However, the impetus is not on teachers alone. Administrators should also teach educators how they would like educators to teach students. In doing so, administrators create a space of authenticity and vulnerability that reminds educators that, especially in an online learning environment, it is okay to struggle. And by demonstrating to educators what it means to constantly adapt and respond, school leaders are creating an environment that welcomes and appreciates changemaking.
Takeaway #5 Changemaking should involve administrators, educators, students, and parents equally. Success is contingent upon this ecosystem of stakeholders, but this success is also predicated on the notion of trust.
Because changemaking knows no bounds, it is important that adults heed the thoughts and perspectives of younger individuals. Ask children what they envision their future to be and ask children about their dreams and aspirations so that plans can be made to work toward them. Paula refers to this as “reinvent[ing] humanity”, which gives us the chance to create a sense of openness and mutual trust.
However, our current circumstances have forced administrators, educators, students, and parents to embrace virtual learning, and therefore, a new way of building community, respect, and trust Although it is unconventional and continues to remain a challenge for some, Tina and Aleta remind us that being in a virtual environment should not stifle one’s efforts, as there are many ways and opportunities to establish a sense of community and camaraderie.
Tina points out that technology has become an equalizer between younger and older cohorts as they begin to navigate different apps and systems. When parents and students or students and teachers begin to coalesce in a single space, there is a chance for rich and in-depth conversations.
Virtual or not, Aleta acknowledges that the current education system is usually devoid of mutual trust and mutual respect. Yet, being in a virtual environment requires educators to be cognizant of the fact that “when you’re on Zoom, you’re a guest in [students’] home”. Instead of one teacher standing at the front of a classroom with 30 students facing forward, virtual classrooms eliminate the hierarchy between educators and students.
We’d expect that technology would disrupt relationships, when in fact, it has the capacity to help reinforce them through recognition of our presence relative to others. Educators now have a chance of dismantling traditional classroom dynamics by cultivating a collective learning environment.
Changemaker education should be the new normal.
Changemaking in education is a collective effort, and the pandemic has given educators and school leaders the opportunity to embrace new perspectives and expectations. Changemaker education is feasible now more than ever to implement in classrooms and schools that are constantly having to navigate a new way of learning.
Here are some ways to implement these ideas into your classroom and curriculum:
1. Start Empathy Toolkit - a resource guide for cultivating empathy
2. Hooray for Monday - a weekly blog series to remodel the school experience for students
3. Speak Truth - student-led civic discourse on contemporary social issues
4. Changemaker District Blueprint - a guide for creating a culture of changemaking in school districts